Thursday, 27 October 2011

A gruesome tale

WHEN orchids first became popular in Victorian days, one particular Dendrobium had a positively Gothic reputation and drew macabre crowds when on view. 

Although elegant in itself, it had a grisly story. In 1890 Frederick Sander ordered orchid hunter William Micholitz to New Guinea in search of a variety of Dendrobium phalaenopsis (then known as Den. schroderianum, now Den. bigibbum – and no, I’m not making this up).
After suffering many difficulties he ended up as a guest in a native village war dance. Not being one for things tribal, he got bored and wandered off, but stumbled across some ritual sacrifices. Revulsed, he ran off and perched in a tree, only to find said Dendrobium. He took large quantities for shipment to England, but en route, fire broke out on the ship and the precious cargo was lost. Ordered back to find more plants, Micholitz grudgingly returned and the following year once again found plants growing on bare limestone between a large number of human skulls and bones.

Ritual for the dead
It seems that the people ritually laid their dead in a light coffin, placed upon the rocks just above high tide, a situation which the Dendrobes appreciate.

After failing to bribe the natives with trinkets, he offered brass wire, which proved irresistible, and went on to strip the area of every single plant. The locals helped him to disturb the bones of their ancestors, but even helped him to stow the plunder. They had one condition: that he pack two of their favourite idols alongside. Once this had been agreed, they performed a war dance round the cases, and assisted in transporting them.

Skull and bones
Despite Micholitz’s promise not to send any bones or skulls with the shipment cargo, one plant attached to a skull arrived in England where it created quite a sensation when it was put up for auction.

Orchid maniac of the day Frederick Boyle recorded:

‘Every newspaper in the realm gave some sort of a report, and a multitude of my confreres were summoned to spin out a column, from such stores of ingenuity as they could find, upon a plant which grew on human skulls and travelled under charge of tutelary idols. The scene at 'Protheroe's' was a renewal of the good old time when every season brought its noble plant, and every plant brought out its noble price--in short, a sensation.’

The plants, still attached to the skulls, along with the idols were sold as one lot and purchased by the Hon. Walter Rothschild, in whose collection they remained for many years.

● Dance of Duk-duk, Bismarck Archipelago, from a watercolour by Joachim Graf Pfeil, 1899, wikimedia
● Dendrobium phalaenopsis, John E Hill, Cooktown orchids and bud, wikimedia
● Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), Frances E. Warr, ‘Manuscripts and Drawings in the Ornithology and Rothschild Libraries of The Natural History Museum’, 1997, wikimedia